Modernity, Culture, and “Beauty” in Women

An interesting—though too-short— piece on the clash between modernity and traditional identity in Japanese society and the advent of the “modern Japanese woman”. I find this fascinating as a comparison point with Korea.

How could one be both Japanese and modern, if modernity is defined as Western? Were modernity and Japaneseness antithetical? Or could individuals and society synthesize some new middle ground? If so, how? Might modernity have parallels in Japanese tradition, or, more precisely, in those practices actively being constructed as “tradition”? Stated conversely, did the Japanese past contain the seeds — the antecedents — of modernity? …

It seems to me that the world over it has been as this article claims: “There was no questioning the fact that men had to work in the new economy and wear the clothes appropriate for factory or office. Women’s participation in the project of modernization, however, was a far thornier matter.” Women are, the world over, rendered “emblems of that native essence” which adoption of the new world economy and new global culture seems (at best) to push to the side or (at worst) destroy.

It’s not as if this doesn’t happen in the West, too, mind you. Westerners may have been wearing suits longer, but the role of the Victorian woman was still to play crucible to the nation’s native values, whatever they were. However, it makes sense that a culture rapidly converting to a kind of “modernity” that includes a lot of “Westernism” would have more anxieties about their identity, and women were in the perfect place in that kind of society to be made into emblems of the native culture.

But then it’s common enough to see women in native dress (from whatever region their ancestry is traceable) accompanying men in suits. It is true of the sari, and (to I think a lesser degree) of the hanbok (the Korean traditional costume). Then again, this also, I think, reflects another role which women often find foisted upon themselves, which is to be the crucibles of beauty in their societies. I’m not completely sure this is particularly modern, or linked to modernity, anxieties about modernization, or anything to do with the West. Every place I’ve ever gone, womens’ beauty is something celebrated by women and men alike. Beauty is one of those nouns attibuted to women just as strength is in men. In poems, beauty is one of the central items of description that is without fail attributed to women of great standing or narrative importance; the emblems of reality in our poems and fairy tales are emblems of what we in turn make women emblems of.

Why does this happen? It’s complicated, of course, but it seems likely to me that part of it is evolution. Male Korean students, when asked why they prefer pretty women, claim that they want beautiful children. It’s unlikely that this is their conscious motivation, of course: men like to be with women whom they find beautiful, full stop. It’s as simple as that. But why do men enjoy that? What is this weird, idiosyncratic thing we call beauty, and why is it so tied up with our aesthetics, our sexuality, and our emotions? I think there is something to this, evolutionarily speaking.

Many of the traits we find beautiful, of course, are indicators of reproductive receptivity and probability of reproductive success. Clear, flushed skin (enhanced in this age by makeup); the development of breasts and hips which indicate the proper age for reproducing; youth (illusorily enhanced in this age using makeup as well); shiny hair, smooth nails, and healthy skin, which indicate freedom from illness. All of these traits are markers that are directly evolutionary, and our genes are selected in such a way as we cannot help but be attracted by them.

It seems to me quite possibly that anxious global modernity’s imposition of “native emblematic” status on nonwestern women seems unsurprising, in the same way that the imposition of “emblem of beauty” (with all that entails) on western women is unsurprising, given this. After all, the idiosyncratic components of what we find comforting and beautiful have to do with what we were exposed to as children, making it perhaps possible that this kind of aesthetics changes only very slowly in most traditional cultures, and even in newly modernized ones.

And what I find equally fascinating, in turn, is that the postmodernism that could happen in reaction to this would, it seems to me, rise from a youth culture, particularly a youth culture in which women were somewhat rebellious againstb their role as emblem of beauty. Does that decade-old style “grunge” fit this description? Girls wearing the same drab, loose flannel shirts and jeans and sneakers as boys? Does the common dress in my home province—women in the same jeans and T-shirts as the men, sans makeup, hair as often as not in a ponytail—reflect a rebellion against this emblematization? What about the way older women tend to cut their hair short? Or the fact that several of the brightest Korean women I know had short-cropped hair when they were in middle school or high school? (On the buses I have taken, I’ve noted a fair number of young school-aged girls have pretty short hair, compared to their college-aged counterparts.)

In the West and abroad, I don’t think the postmodern rebellion is necessarily doomed, but I also don’t think it can be completely successful; if the valuation of womens’ beauty was purely cultural, or socialized, then it would be possible, but evolution is at least to some degree involved, and taking evolution on is a losing battle.

Still, there is natural interest, and then there is imposition. When I walk past the makeup shops here, which are plentiful and which look like apothecaries’ shops of old, I wonder that more women haven’t simply revolted in refusal. But, as my friend Young Ja once reported, a woman who goes to work without makeup on for even one day is advised, by male and female co-workers alike, to make sure to wear makeup from that day on. She is hassled continually and can hear some very blunt (read: insulting) things. Considering this, I think it would be nice, however, for more women around the world to achieve the kind of freedom that women like my sisters or female friends from Saskatchewan enjoy… less concern about hair or makeup, more concern about whatever truly concerns them.

One thought on “Modernity, Culture, and “Beauty” in Women

  1. I’m reading a book at the moment that really ties into all this stuff. It’s On Human Finery, by Quentin Bell. In it Bell argues that before the French and Industrial Revolutions both men and women’s clothing was governed by the ideas of Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, Conspicuous Waste and Conspicuous Outrage. Both men and women wanted to look like they were so rich that they did nothing productive and only futile things. However, after the industrial revolution, industry for men became more acceptable because it could make you extremely rich. So men began to show their wealth through Vicarious Consumption instead. Through their women, through their children and through their servents. All had to be as incapable of productive activity as possible, and what is seen as beautiful in terms of fashion is what best achieves this.

    It’s really interesting, it ties in to alot of what you’ve said, and I think you’d like it. No idea how you’d find a copy though. I pick it up at random from my local library.

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